By Karen Vogelsang, 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year and Governor’s Teacher Cabinet Member
See if you can solve this math problem: what happens when you add together four Hope Street Group Fellows plus the superintendent from one of the largest school districts in the country? Well, the answer isn’t five! The answer is a dynamic opportunity to share teacher voice through the creation of the Shelby County Teacher Advisory Council. So how did one meeting with our superintendent lead to creating the advisory council? And how can our story help you share your voice and the voices of those in your district?
The purpose of our first visit with our superintendent, Dorsey Hopson, was pretty simple: introduce ourselves, let him know about our work as Hope Street Group Fellows, and enlist his support in using district communications to reach out to all of our district’s 7000 teachers. We were able to get on his calendar pretty quickly at the beginning of the school year, much to our surprise. But the four of us, Monica Brown, Josalyn McGhee and Comeshia Williams, and me, wanted to provide some feedback on a few concerns of our own. One of those was allowing teachers release time for various leadership opportunities. As we talked, he leaned back and said, “This is what I need; I need to hear the voices of those serving in the classroom—the teachers!” But he also wondered aloud how to accomplish that. I shared the model of the Teacher Advisory Council (TAC) that I served on with the Tennessee Department of Education. He liked what he heard, and before we knew it, we were walking out of our first meeting empowered to create the first Teacher Advisory Council for Shelby County Schools. This group would eventually consist of 18 solutions-oriented teachers who meet with the superintendent to discuss how decisions made at the district level impact the classroom.
With Superintendent Hopson’s support, we were then tasked with identifying other solutions-oriented teachers to serve on the council. Our district is divided into fourteen smaller zones. We wanted to be sure that members of the TAC had representation from each zone, resembled the demographics of those we worked with, and we wanted all content areas and grade bands represented. We also knew we needed bold individuals who would be willing to share honestly; we needed solutions-oriented teachers who were willing to challenge the status quo. It didn’t take us long to find fourteen solutions-oriented teachers willing to join us, and within four weeks of our initial meeting, we were back in the executive board room. During our initial meeting, we agreed to meet once a quarter, but due to the rich conversations and authentic feedback on district topics, we ended up meeting five times during the first semester! As a result, we knew Superintendent Hopson clearly valued our input.
So what has our work looked like so far? During those initial meetings, he wanted teacher input concerning teacher compensation, our teacher evaluation system, assessments, teacher retention, and career pathways. TAC members discussed potential career paths, and shared ideas that would allow teacher leaders to keep a foot in the classroom, but at the same time provide opportunities to lead district initiatives. We knew our superintendent was serious about our input because at our next meeting he had drafts from human resources for three potential teacher leadership positions.
Our members have also been invited to other district leadership team meetings regarding work with our evaluation system, student discipline, work with the Gates Foundation, stock take meetings, and education community panel discussions. Because of the collaborative efforts between Hope Street Group and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, we were invited to share our story of creating the advisory council at the Teaching and Learning Conference earlier this year.
How can you make this happen in your district, regardless of the size?
- First, find your tribe! If you want to move quickly, go by yourself, but remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you’d rather go far, find your tribe and go together! Reach out to other teachers who share your passion and are effective leaders within your district. Then ask for an initial meeting with your superintendent. Be solutions oriented, flexible, open-minded, and don’t turn any meeting into a gripe session. As teacher leaders, we may have specific issues we want to discuss, but there may be other issues that your superintendent needs to focus on, so go into meetings with an open mind; you might be surprised that your district leaders are willing to listen and learn from you as well.
- During that initial meeting, find out what’s keeping your district leaders awake at night. Ask questions, listen with an open mind, share your story, and share the stories of your students and their families.
- Finally, keep students at the center of the conversation. The bottom line in all of this work is providing our students with the education they need and deserve, so they have choices for college and career when they graduate high school!
As we move forward, we know that our superintendent wants to include teachers who act as liaisons between the teachers and the district to offer insight, feedback, and advice on various district issues. This was an unexpected opportunity brought about by a small group of teachers privileged to be Hope Street Group Fellows interested in advocating for their profession. If we can do it, you can too!
Karen Vogelsang is a fourth-grade teacher at Winridge Elementary School in Shelby County and is a National Board Certified Teacher. She currently serves as a member of the Governor’s Teacher Cabinet, a Hope Street Group fellow, and she served for two years on the department’s Teacher Advisory Council. Karen was named the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year.